09 April 2018

Who Is Canada's Outstanding Novelist? (1945)

Critic William Arthur Deacon isn't much discussed these days – or even much recognized – but for a good part of the last century he was Canada's foremost literary champion. As book editor, he held sway for forty years in the pages of the Manitoba Free Press (1921), Saturday Night (1922-28), the Mail & Empire (1928-36), and the Globe & Mail (1936-61),

I've taken a few swipes at Deacon over the years, including this one in defence of Collins White Circle. His judgement was often questionable – Robert Norwood? Really? – but I do admire his enthusiasm and dedication. Looking through his correspondence, it sometimes seems he was in touch with anyone who ever penned a novel, poem or play in this Dominion. Dorothy Dumbrille was one such person. It was in researching her second novel All This Difference (the subject of a forthcoming review), that I came upon the following comments published on 3 February 1945 in "The Fly Leaf," Deacon's weekly Globe & Mail column. It's interesting not only a snapshot of a dire time in the country's literature, but as a reflection of Deacon's aforementioned questionable judgement.

I've added the covers of what were then the most recent books by the authors Deacon mentioned. My comments are in italics.

Most frequently asked and least answerable is the question. Who is Canada's Outstanding Novelist? This week it came in the form of a request to choose between Morley Callaghan, Mazo de la Roche, Frederick Philip Grove and Hugh MacLennan. Fortunately, there is no towering genius in Canadian fiction to prevent others from receiving attention. In these early days, the notable acts are that Canadian authors display the most varied preferences for subject and style treatment and that readers also differ widely in their judgments.
The Building of Jalna
Mazo de la Roche
New York: Little, Brown, 1944
Certainly the works of Miss Mazo de la Roche have attained a world-wide popularity far beyond those of any other Canadian writer in any field. Her Jalna fixation is the result of stupendous demand. Millions of people in many countries are familiar with the Whiteoaks family.
Miss de la Roche's Jalna fixation was then nine novels into its sixteen novel run.
More Joy in Heaven
Morley Callaghan
New York: Random House, 1937

The Master of the Mill
Frederick Philip Grove [pseud. Felix Paul Greve]
Toronto: Macmillan, 1944
Mr. Callaghan showed exceptional talent as a member of the Hemingway school and seems to be going into partial eclipse with it. It is some years since he published a new book. Very different in type, Frederick Philip Grove, a somewhat heavy writers merits too solid to be ignored. He brought into Canadian fiction an intellectual and artistic integrity that was and is important. Neither the novels of Mr. Grove nor those of Mr. Callaghan have been specially popular.
It had been seven years since Callaghan had published a novel. Four more years would pass before the next, Luke Baldwin's Vow. It's considered a children's book.
Barometer Rising
Hugh MacLennan
Toronto: Collins, 1941
It is comment enough on the impression of Barometer Rising that my correspondent should include Hugh MacLennan in the quartet. Two Solitudes, when it is in circulation, will do much to reinforce Mr. MacLennan's position as a potential best Canadian novelist. He will be watched to the last comma.
Two months later, when it was "in circulation," Deacon wrote, "Two Solitudes may well be considered the most important Canadian novel ever published." It remains MacLennan's best-known novel (though The Watch That Ends the Night is much better).
Earth and High Heaven
Gwethalyn Graham
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1944
But there are plenty of others. Gwethalyn Graham's Swiss Sonata placed her among the leading Canadian novels [sic], as Earth and High Heaven has now elevated her to a similar prominence among American novelists.
Earth and High Heaven was Graham's second novel. It followed Swiss Sonata, her first, by six years. She never wrote another. I speculate as to the reason here.
The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek
Thomas H. Raddall
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1943

Forges of Freedom
Franklin Davey McDowell
Toronto: Macmillan, 1943

The Higher Hill
Grace Campbell
Toronto: Collins, 1943
Thomas M.H. Raddall, author of Roger Sudden, His Majesty's Yankees and Pied Piper of Dipper Creek, may well wind up as the Canadian novelist whom everyone reads. Franklin Davey McDowell has already, in The Champlain Road, given Canada one novel of permanent worth and his far-finer Forges of Freedom deserves a much wider public than it has reached. Grace Campbell has a very large and ever-growing audience for her two books.
I studied Raddall in university, but not The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek. Decades passed before I so much as heard of The Champlain Road, despite the fact that it won the 1939 Governor General's Award for Fiction (The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek won in 1943). Another decade passed before I learned of Franklin Davey McDowell's "far-finer" Forges of Freedom. I've never so much as seen a copy, and could find no better image of the book than the screen grab presented above. Grace Campbell was much easier.
Carrying Place
Angus Mowat
Toronto: Saunders, 1944
Among the new writers of higher promise is Angus Mowat, who is sure to be a writer intensely admired by other writers. I think his books will endure as long as any written in our generation.
Father of Farley, Angus Mowat wrote just two novels: Then I'll Look Up (1938) and Carrying Place (1944). His enduring books have been out-of-print for over seven decades. 
Thirty Acres [Trente arpents]
Ringuet [pseud. Philippe Panneton; trans. Felix & Dorothy Walter]
Toronto: Macmillan, 1940
But there are now so many dozens of these Canadian novelists. Ringuet's Thirty Acres, for instance, comes pretty near to  being a perfect performance. Alan Roy Evans [sic] is another up near the top in merit. I have faith in the sensitive abilities of Jessie L. Beattie and wish she would publish more. Alexander Knox, playwright and actor, did one exquisite novel of the Ottawa Valley, called Bride of Quietness, before turning to better-paid work. He should be induced to continue with fiction. And so on... and so on.
The English translation of Ringuet's Trente arpents was a staple of the New Canadian Library and is still published in the original French. Allen Roy Evans is one of those odd Canadian writers who achieved far greater sales in a language other than their own. Der Zug der Rentiere, the German translation of his 1935 fictionalized memoir Reindeer Trek, has enjoyed at least six different editions. When Deacon wrote his column, Evans' newest work was All in a Twilight (1944). I've never seen a copy, and can find no image online. Ditto Jessie L. Beattie's Three Measures (1938) and Alexander Knox's Bride of Quietness (1933). That said, I have seen Knox in film adaptations of Nicolas and Alexandra, Joshua Then and NowTinker Tailer Soldier Spy, and Gorky Park. More than anything, I remember him acting opposite Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf.
It may be of great ultimate advantage in our literature that the variety of cultural backgrounds among Canadians precludes any uniformity in our fiction and in the tastes of Canadian readers. But we waste talent shockingly. I think of a woman like Irene Baird writing two novels like John and Waste Heritage and then being allowed to sit back and write no more. Darkly the River Flows will be along shortly to launch a new novelist, John MacDonald, and the manuscripts of other men in the armed services will presently be in print. Florence Randal Livesay, also, might do another novel to the advantage of all and sundry.
Darkly the River Flows
John MacDonald
New York: Coward-McCann, 1945
Deacon seems unaware that Irene Baird followed up John (1937) and Waste Heritage (1939) with He Rides the Sky (1941)... another book I've never seen. I've had better luck with John MacDonald's Darkly the River Flows. Sadly, the novel-writing days of Florence Randal Livesay, Dorothy's mother, were in the past. Her last novel, Savour of Salt, was published in 1927 by Dent.
We have not had time yet to acquire perspective, but I have no doubt that the fiction of this era will finally be judged to be relatively as fine as the Canadian poetry produced between 1880 and 1920.
Deacon lived another three decades after writing those words. Did they offer enough perspective to make him realize he'd been wrong? Most of the fiction of that era pales beside Carman and Lampman. You may take issue, but can we at least agree that the absence of a towering genius is not "fortunate"?

Related posts:


  1. A veritable avalanche of names and titles to look up. I've read some Deacon. Reading him feels like doing anthropology more than appreciating literature, but I'm willing.

    1. Must say, it's got me interested in Alexander Knox's Bride of Quietness. I note the novel also made the UNESCO-sponsored list of 100 best Canadian books (to which Deacon contributed).